Unshattering the Host:
Flowertruck’s Partly Cloudy
Words by Giacomo Bianchino
Tuesday 11th October, 2022

Following the release of Partly Cloudy from beloved Sydney garage-pop crew Flowertruck, TJ contributor Giacomo Bianchino has mirrored the album’s scope with a fittingly eloquent and ambitious exploration of the new record.
The arches at Tewkesbury Abbey and Arles’ St Trophime, both built in the 1100s, are foundational; holding the vaulting in place and supporting the windows. A century later, however, the cathedral of Piacenza shrinks the structural arch into the decorative detailing of the eaves. By 1278, at the Cathedral, Campanile and Baptistry of Pisa, arches proliferate and stumble over each other in a florid profusion, announcing the start of the Gothic in Europe.

Thanks to the march of history, each new style is a more complete language; in which the structural principles of those which came before it come to be mere ornaments. Gold leaf goes from dominating the canvas in the late medieval to highlighting accents in the mid-Renaissance. The first-person narration is reduced from the principle of confessional literature in Augustine and Rousseau to simply one voice among many used by Joyce for pure stylistic effect. What was a feat of reconstitution for one generation becomes a clever irony for the next.

This process usually takes time - decades or even centuries. It’s rare to see it in the work of a single artist. In the development of Flowertruck between their debut and sophomore albums, however, there is so gross an inflation of scope that what was once structural is transformed into detail. 2018’s Mostly Sunny’s depiction of life as a Sydney millennial was not exhaustive of the band’s outlook. It was, at most, a window on a tiny section of life to which their most recent album opens the double doors.

The distance between the two records, then, is that of the gap between a lyric poem and an epic. The new LP takes the disaffection of Sydney millennials which formed the basis of the debut as simply one hue in a much larger palette. The album explores the spectrum of friendship, of family, of disappointment and of the physical reality of a life in music, all without sacrificing the charm of specificity.

By making the target so much larger, Partly Cloudy tests the dexterity of frontman Charles Rushforth, who proves equal on grounds of perspective and of performance.

The reasons for the expansion of outlook in this effort go beyond the platitudes of growing old and world-weary. The writing of the ten songs spanned the four years since Mostly Sunny. In that stretch the world stopped momentarily and vast revisions were made to the most modest plans. The personal in this narrative, then, is given a strange universality by the conditions in which it was written.

Though the songs are apparently disconnected, they do in fact follow a pattern of expression and reflection; moving from an attempt at straightforward lyrical narrative to a meditation on how fraught such a process is. In the opening five songs, the shade of mood is consistent as Rushforth embarks on a sometimes tortuous examination of the outlook of a writer approaching their thirties. The opening salvo ‘Pretending’ struggles to make sense of a broken friendship through the imagery of online communication (“an angry bell struck by your ear/a history you cannot clear”). Over a twee suite of bright bass melodies and camp percussive accents, the song strikes a plaintive note about the rewriting of personal narratives too painful to confront.

The second song, ‘Father of the Bride’ is a rare piece of character work, focussing on the intensity of emotion felt at one of life’s more ambiguous stations. This puts the band in the line of the great portrait artists of the Australian tradition. The influence of Dave McComb is particularly acute here, as Rushforth moves gracefully on the margin of irony an earnestness. It also pushes the album away from the simple confessional tack of his usual lyric, prompting us to wonder at whether there is a single point of narration in the album.

Having opened this gap between the interest in the specific and the general, the next two songs in the album ask whether the whole writing game is worthwhile in the first place. ‘Crying Shame’ makes a proverb out of Baudelaire’s reflections about the suffering poet (“it’s a crying shame/no one will ever feel your pain”) and churns it out over thumping arrangement with all the frenetic energy of an Eddy Current song. ‘Likelihood’ stews in the apathy of this self-pity, reflecting that “When I was 17/if you told me this was where I’d be/I don’t think I’d want to go.” The band hasn’t reached these heights of pathos before; and by the end of the fourth song we’ve looped ourselves in the problem of suffering agony which can’t fully be expressed.

Partly Cloudy, however, offers a somewhat novel solution to this age old process, and broaches properly literary territory in doing so. The first half of the record ends with ‘Sing Along to Your Life’- whose Robert-Forster jaggedness undergirds a lyrical reflection on the relationship between writing and its material. The song doesn’t ask us to sing the world into being, but to “sing along” to one’s life, and that even though “it might be hard/you can still get it right.” Sounding somewhat like Pound’s admission that “I am not a demigod/I cannot make it cohere” in Canto CXVI, Rushforth jabs ironically at the very project he’s just placed us in the middle of.

Returning at this point, however, were as tedious as go o’er.

The second half of the album is denouement, moving surely towards the note finally struck by the closer, ‘Hopeless’. Tracks six and seven are the kinds of snapshot work that Rushforth excels at - casting moving light over the squat peaks and shallow troughs of the everyday. ‘Quiet’ is a nocturne from the hand of the insomniac fighting the freight of night-time thinking. Against its name, it’s the most angular song in the mix, if not the most interesting. Far more compelling is ‘All Through Roads’, a triumphant ode to highway driving which might’ve been lifted from the canon of the best songs by the Jam or the Monochrome Set. Sarah Sykes’ thumping organ is a revelation for the band, warming the pores of the song into a kind of fanfare.

The minor scale of these songs suggests that “getting it right” might not mean having all the answers, but finding beauty in the margins and in the quotidian. This is confirmed by ‘Alright/All Right’, whose central refrain - “It doesn’t have to be all right” (which seems to have once been followed, or at least should’ve been, by the chiastic “to be alright”) - is about as Flowertruck as a moral epigram might hope to be.

The band has learned, it seems, to stay with their trouble, and this is plain from the two closing tracks on the album. ‘Oberon’, with its Blue Mountains pastoral (“squabbling on banks where wild Thyme grows”), returns to the memory-work of the opener ‘Pretending’, resolving that “you don’t need those dreams at all.” It would, indeed, have been a perfect song to bring the album full circle (Ourouberon). It is also a curiosity in the band’s work, sounding itself like a return to the heyday of mid-2000s ska-flecked folk pop (it’s actually good, don’t let that turn you off). But the album doesn’t come to chomp on its own tail here; the sky is only partly cloudy, after all.

The last track ‘Hopeless’ takes us outside the fiction to the site of the writing itself. A rare paean to the graininess of life in music, it pays a nod both to the history and “those who came before us in the scene” as well as to the process of writing, and the lapses in “focus” which sometimes assail the craft. We aren’t left, however, with the “hopelessness” that the song’s title promises. Indeed, the crew of the swart ship are left “hopeless in happiness”, writing and gigging without, perhaps, ever making the break they promised themselves at 17. It’s not a rousing note to end on, but the kind of lesson a Scottish foreman might give you about finding love in your labour when he catches you slouching over a rake.

The album performs, then, a moral feat far beyond the purview of Mostly Sunny. It tells a story of storytelling, at both its most inspired and dreary. In this way, it is a success in the only way the modern epic can be - a glorious renunciation of the right to have the final word.

This kind of dodge-and-parry reflects a maturity on full display in the execution of the album’s sound. The album is masterful in its dispersal of details - little rhythmic flourishes in unexpected places, or vocal phrases frayed to the point of rasping vulnerability. The drum patterns are more varied than in the first album; and are built quite exquisitely around the melody. Importantly, the guitar and keyboard have been stripped to centre the band’s strongest feature: the frontman’s voice. Rushforth glides easily from the kind of frank and wry statement of his trademark sprechgesang to the strident warbling of his more baroque melodies, while rarely dropping a note.

Where the lyrics are self-conscious of the impossible scope of their task, the musical arrangements sometimes suffer from ambition. There are some ugly embellishments (the keyboard decrescendo in the second verse ‘Pretending’, for example, feels too gimmicky), and the songs can become formulaic. You could throw a twenty on every song having a bridge or middle-eight with a chanted refrain (in the nearly five minutes of ‘Likelihood’ there are two!). Some songs feel a bit obvious in their melody, or try too hard to shoehorn proverbial wisdom into the lyric.

None of this is fatal; indeed a perfect album about “working it out” would be a contradiction in terms. Flowertruck, however, are happy in this hopelessness, and Partly Cloudy fills the gaps between its fragments with gold.

Partly Cloudly is out now via Spunk Records - head to flowertruck.bandcamp.com to grab a copy on limited ocean blue vinyl. Catch Flowertruck on tour later this month, as they launch the album around the country.